The Big Why – my 70/30 rule

By Marianne Jackson

If anyone has missed the TED talk by Simon Sinek (, stop reading this and give yourself 18 minutes of truly valuable listening.  The talk clarified for me what is the most frequently missing ingredient when we try to make organizational changes.  It explains the resistance we will always meet if we have neglected The Big Why.

Sinek draws three concentric circles with WHY, How and What in each layer with WHY in the middle.  He explains that marketers and entrepreneurs most frequently try to sell us on the fancy “what” that they’ve designed and hope to intrigue us with “how” to use it.  Drawing on the exceptionally successful examples of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the Wright Brothers, and Apple, Sinek points out that they convey to us the deeply personal WHY – WHY it matters, WHY we believe, WHY this enhances who we are.  Don’t take my word for it – watch it.  As he says, Dr. King didn’t give the “I have a Plan” speech; he gave the “I have a Dream” speech.

We have to spend sufficient time developing for our listeners and participants the why – the context – which is often crystal clear to those of us who have been living the problems and working out countermeasures.  But, shortchanging this crucial fundamental step leaves the recipients of the changes feeling necessarily skeptical.  They don’t see it.  Why would we do this?  What is this about?  What’s this extra work? What’s the point?  And they will go straight at what’s wrong with the proposal.

I have come up with my own personal 70/30 rule.  Anytime newness is being introduced, whether it be something grand involving a whole new process or as lowly as a revised form, even if it’s been developed by a fully multi-disciplinary team with great representation, the presentation to peers requires spending 70% of the time on a review of the Big WHY before 30% of time demonstrating the cool new thing. My world is medical and my audience is frequently very impatient. But it’s still critical to devote that 70%, to take very intelligent physicians, staff, line managers, or VPs through the mission – why are we here?  Who are we?  Then I take them through the history of the problems that have been encountered that led to the change effort.   Remind everyone in shamelessly emotional terms what has been going wrong, the wastes and frustrations experienced, pointing out the things they have complained about until you have every head in the room bobbing in agreement with you.  Now they know you have listened to them. You have created the appetite for the hard to swallow pill of change.  While it is so tempting to want to go straight to the clever new thing, without the WHY, they choke on it.

So, what does this mean in practical terms for Lean efforts?  If I’m going to be successful, I begin with reminding the audience what our true goal – our belief – is and then review the scope of the problem – creating focus. What did the original charter say?  I reiterate the problem statement in detail, walking through simple data and several anecdotes.   I walk them through the process our kaizen team took to look deeply at current state wastes, helping everyone relate to the problems as we gain their confidence that this represents their experience.  Only then are countermeasures introduced and any supporting data that demonstrates their potential power to improve.  Now the countermeasures are grounded in a tight logic, an incontrovertible context that disarms the naysayers and lets the PDCA cycle proceed.

Lastly, of course, we emphasize that PDCA cycles ensure that we will test the measures for unintended consequences and seek feedback before declaring the change permanent.  But that’s the subject for another time.

1 Comment so far

  1. Michele D. Dekelbaum

    So true. You also have to know who your audience is and present the Whys in ways they will listen to and not tune you out. For one project, we had a slogan – for nurses: “capture the heart and the mind will follow” while for physicians: “capture the mind and the heart will follow.”

Comments are closed.